When the escape from Egypt was certain, when the last furious wave had closed over their enemies' heads and the dangerous waters lay smooth again, when the Israelites could finally turn toward the future without fear that the past would snatch them back--what did they see before them? Not the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey, but the wide and terrifying wilderness that would claim them for forty long, hard years of wandering. They were not carried along on a surge of vindicated faith, but stumbled forward with paralyzing doubts. And instead of enjoying sweet unity after all they'd been through, they were torn by bickering and division. They walked into relentless uncertainty and discomfort, and fell asleep on the hard ground to wake feeling ashamed for dreaming of the easier life of slavery they had left behind.
Our own stories will never be quite so dramatic. Yet each of us knows a little about what it means to be lost in the wilderness. We know the awful disappointment, akin to despair, of being suddenly pathless and alone when we'd expected to stride confidently straight into the promised land. We know how it feels to take a leap of faith toward some place we want to be--in love or relationship, in work or school or location--only to find that nothing turns out the way we'd hoped and expected. The familiar has been left behind, but what we yearn for has not yet come into view, and there we are, lost in the desert. We have no way to know how long our wandering will last.
These passages through the land of in-between are scary and uncomfortable, and the desert is a place we would rather barrel through as quickly as possible toward the welcoming ground of our destination. But our time in the desert is a passage of the heart, not a physical journey of the body, and it's not in our power to speed it up.
I have never been lost in a literal desert, but there was a time in my life when I visited one every year. When I lived in the San Francisco area, every spring for five years I traveled with a friend to the low desert just over the California border into Arizona, where we camped for a week in the middle of nowhere. Every year the experience was the same: At first, especially after the damp lushness of the Bay Area, the landscape seemed absolutely barren and dead. Then my eyes would adjust, and I'd start to notice all the complicated forms of life that thrived there. The dryness of the air made things crystal clear even at great distances, and the desert light drew breathtaking colors out of the rocks and shadows. At night, there were the incredible desert stars.
I hold my lessons from the Southwestern desert close to my heart. They can sustain me through the deserts of the heart and soul when I wander the wilderness of the in-between. Our inner deserts have something to offer us, too. It's hard to fight the impulse to get out of the place of passage as quickly as possible, but each day we spend there, no matter how uncomfortable, is a precious day of our lives. What strange gifts might it offer to us, if we can calm ourselves enough to look?
After forty years in the desert, the Israelites in the ancient myth finally reached its end. They touched life-giving waters again, and waded into the Jordan, amazed and glad. Maybe they knew, even in that moment of deep relief and readiness, that the desert wasn't accidental, that it had opened and cleansed them in some necessary way. Maybe they understood how the wilderness had sharpened their awareness and softened their hearts, so they could at long last receive, not just the gifts of the promised land, but the gifts of the desert that had brought them there.